Jim has made the case that sentience is problematic as a ground for membership within the moral community, but Peter Singer-style Utilitarian arguments for animal rights are problematic for other reasons as well. In this post I would like to address two other problems with Utilitarianism, one a general problem, and one a problem as it pertains to animal rights.
I don’t think it is going out on a limb to say that many people who study the empirical sciences and mathematics are attracted to Utilitarianism because, on the surface, it seems more rational than other ethical theories. If I am a biology major and my only exposure to ethics is a two-week summary of Mill and Kant taught in an introductory philosophy course, it is unsurprising that that I might come to the conclusion that Utilitarianism is and should be the dominant paradigm for ethical reasoning. After all, it has a great deal of intuitive appeal (don’t we all agree that it’s wrong to hurt people?), and it’s a lot simpler to understand than the Categorical Imperative. More importantly, it seems objective. Utilitarians talk of doing a “utility calculus” in order to determine whether a particular action is morally laudable. It seems scientific because it is contingent upon as-yet-unknown information, and it seems fair because every person’s pleasure (or, for Singer, every being’s sentience) is given equal weight.
All of these virtues aside, however, Utilitarianism faces serious objections on a meta-ethical level. This is because the foundation for Utilitarianism is an assertion about objective value that almost all non-Utilitarians reject and which Utilitarians have a great deal of trouble defending. This is the argument:
Every person values his or her own happiness (pleasure and absence of pain).
Therefore, happiness is objectively valuable.
If something is objectively valuable, each person has a moral obligation to promote it.
Therefore, each of us has a moral obligation to promote happiness, whether it is our own or someone else’s.
The move from the uncontroversial descriptive observation that each of us values our own happiness to the moral proclamation that we ought to promote the happiness of others is an attempt to bridge the is/ought gap. This is an inevitable part of every ethical theory, but I think the Utilitarians do an especially bad job with it. The problem is the move from one individual valuing his own happiness to the objective value of happiness as such. It is just not true that my happiness is valuable to people who don’t know me. The fact that others value their own happiness gives them reason to promote their own own happiness, but it does not give them any reason to promote mine because, as a matter of fact, they do not value it. So, when Utilitarians say that we have a moral obligation to promote universal happiness they are really making a prescriptive assertion (“Happiness is intrinsically valuable”) that is no more empirical and no less dogmatic than the commandments of Biblical Scripture. The Millian Greatest Happiness Principle may be more appealing to modern university students than the orders of a dubiously existent creator, but it is no more true.
Having made note of the general problems of Utilitarianism, I now want to move on to Singer’s argument for animal rights. As Jim has pointed out, the idea of animals being member of a moral community which gives them rights without correlative obligations is highly problematic. I think some of this confusion is due to the fact that Utilitarians like Singer really can’t give an account of rights that is anywhere close to the commonplace use of the word. In political terms, rights are generally seen as a sort of trump card. If I have a right to something, that means others have a certain type of obligation to me- either to provide me with it (this is the case when we speak of a so called “positive” right such as health care or education) or, more narrowly, to refrain from interfering with my having it (this is the case when we speak of a so-called “negative” right such as a right to life or a right to bodily sovereignty).
Utilitarians believe that we all have a moral obligation to promote the greatest overall happiness, which means that they can make sense of all sorts of prima facie rules for moral action. For example, the Utilitarian would say that we usually have a moral obligation to refrain from killing innocent people because this is likely to cause a great deal of suffering and not promote much happiness. However, in those situations in which it would promote the greatest happiness (or prevent the most suffering) by killing an innocent person (imagine a bomb strapped to a baby crawling toward a crowded shopping plaza), it is not only morally permissible to kill an innocent, it is morally obligatory to do so. This makes it hard to make sense of a moral “right” to life in way that we normally understand the term. In Utilitarian terms, an innocent person’s “right” to life is entirely contingent upon whether killing him is likely to destroy more happiness than it creates. The “right” is not a trump card. It can’t even be used for the sake of an appeal because, if the Utilitarian is doing his calculus correctly, the innocent person’s happiness has already been counted as a factor and outweighed by the benefits of killing him.
The issue of animal rights is an obvious area of disagreement between Singer-style Utilitarians and most other philosophers, but, in my view, it derives from the fact that Singer-style Utilitarians can’t give a good account of rights in general. Rights, as we generally understand them, track with a system of obligations within a society of persons. Singer raises legitimate challenges to our notion of moral personhood by arguing that many within our society (infants, brain-dead humans, etc.) don’t seem to be capable of fulfilling obligations to others within the moral community and yet are protected legally (and most would say morally) as persons with rights. It is difficult to pinpoint a reason for protecting these humans that is not based upon the arbitrary fact of their biology, but Singer’s conclusion that these beings are morally equivalent to other animals is just as arbitrary. For Singer, all it means to have a right is to be worthy of consideration within the utility calculus, but that consideration is itself based upon the arbitrary assertion that happiness is objectively valuable. Even if we could establish that animal pleasure and pain is relevantly identical to human pleasure and pain, I would have no more reason to value an animal’s happiness than to value the happiness of a complete stranger. To my way of thinking, that’s not much of a reason at all.